Just recently, I had a chat with a camera woman who has been working in the UK film and TV industry for 13 years and felt utterly tired of her same-same job. She is working on TV talk shows which feels to her like boring routine and she was happy to hear about my enthusiasm for the docu series I am working on. While I wondered whether it wouldn't be nice to have the regular salary that she gets from the big broadcasting company that employs her.
When I tell people that I make films, apart from the guaranteed interest and the follow-up questions about what the films are about and for whom and how I make them, there are usually two kind of reactions: either my opposite is very impressed and concludes that I am making a seven-figure income - or they ask: "Can you make a living with that?"
I always find it interesting when that second question comes. Honestly, would you ask someone who has just told you that they are a dentist or an accountant or a nurse: "Can you make a living with that?" You probably wouldn't. But why not? I know lawyers who had to go into debt to open their practice and are struggling to make ends meet. Nurses are notoriously underpaid. Yet, if someone tells you: "I am working as a nurse on a children's ward.", you would probably not enquire how they earn their living. So why is that?
Presumably because all those other professions are meant to be bread-winning first, fun-bringing later. Yet, there are kindergarten teachers who tell you how much they love their work, there are public servants who revel in their tasks. This is a true story. Yes, they also do their bit and complain about the routine just so that we don't think they are in it for the fun. But there are people who have chosen these jobs and enjoy them. So clearly they love their work. We should ask them, too, whether besides personal satisfaction they also earn their upkeep.
Cause that - I suppose - is the underlying assumption behind the question: "Can you make a living as a filmmaker?"
Here is the answer: if you are doing it to make a living, you can. It is sometimes easier, sometimes harder than in other professions. And it entirely depends on the path you choose. If you secure a job in a corporation - a broadcaster, a big media production company - you are more likely to have a regular and stable income than if you freelance. The same goes for carpenters and pharmacists, by the way.
The media corporations tend to downsize and jobs there tend to be temporary. But the same can actually be said about universities and hospitals.
Yet, without a doubt, there is a money issue involved in filmmaking. The German documentary association AG DOK has conducted a study in 2012 revealing that most documentary filmmakers working in Germany earn salaries somewhere around the poverty line.
I am not a hundred per cent certain whether I like the public discussion of that study - even though I am permeating it now myself. As it seems to bring little more than the basis for the same old question again: "You are making documentaries? Can you make a living with that?"
Hell, yes, if you pay for my work, I very well can. That means everyone from the person whom I work with to the audience that wants to see my work. If you pay for it accordingly, meaning: you pay for what you get, then yes, a filmmaker can make films - and a living.
Which seems to be the crucial thing: when it comes to money, we seem to divide into two separate groups - those who are good at asking for things from ourselves and those who are good at asking for things from others.
The first group - which I belong to - would not compromise personal fulfilment, integrity, ideals and wealth for a secure paycheck. All those are personal things that you have to demand of yourself first. You have to be sure to live according to you own values and be accountable first and foremost to yourself. And you might end up compromising on your income.
The second group which is good at asking for things - in this case: money - from others would not go without making sure they receive a fair amount of something (money in this example) in exchange for whatever it is they are doing and would take no crap in that area, they would rather walk away than stand exploitation of their work. They do tolerate to a certain extend compromising their passions and ideals though.
No one of these is better than the other. They just both seem to come with certain advantages or disadvantages. And - you guessed it - a lot of filmmakers seem to belong to group one and - if funds are tight - seem to be willing to compromise income for ideals, aka heart projects. A lot of artists in general, I think, can be counted among those.
Then there are others working in the industry who are better at demanding a decent pay for their work who usually end up in a staff positions on bigger productions. Whether or not the amount of payment they receive there is appropriate for the hours worked is debatable - and always debated within the unions. Praised be they.
But those employees seem to do better financially and also rise higher on the career ladder - while sometimes complaining about the lack of inspirational projects in their work slate.
So what to do?
Basically, first you could identify which of the two groups you seem to belong to.
Have you got a tendency to follow through with the ideas you are passionate about, working on low to unpaid projects because you believe in them (or in yourself)? Do you tend to wonder how you will pay the rent, but feel proud of your work and what you have achieved creatively?
You definitely make living to your standards and ideals a priority and compromise on the payment side. You first and foremost demand things from yourself and tend to let others get something from you even if the payment is low.
Do you work hard for high profile projects, make doing a good job and your professional reputation a priority? Do you build on your previous job to secure a better paid job the next time, working the same crew position but with a better company or on a higher profile project? Do you steadily advance your career within the terms the industry sets, but wonder sometimes when you will finally get to work on something that you would actually want to watch yourself?
You are striving for a fair remuneration for your efforts and are good at selling yourself and what you have to offer, knowing perfectly well how you want to advance your finances and reputation. You are good at requesting a fair exchange from others but compromise on your ideals and dreams if the paycheck is right.
As I said before: both of these are "right" - and ideally, they balance out. But knowing your tendency can also tell you how to strike that balance.
So if you feel your finances are a bit over-stretched, maybe it is time to use your capacity of demanding things from yourself (aka your discipline and enthusiasm) to apply it to the money side and get passionate about your earnings.
If you feel bored and frustrated in your work by uninspiring projects, maybe it is time to use your talent for setting the right value for yourself for looking for work better uses your skills and "pays" you better in terms of creative satisfaction.
In essence, both of these approaches are about self-worth and what we think we deserve. The Happy Filmmaker knows they deserve fair pay AND fun and work, because then what they deliver will be a pleasure to others and - depending on the project - might even advocate more fairness (and fair pay) in the world in general.
Here is to making money and making films and making the world a better place - all in perfect balance!